We’re standing in line at the Reindeer Express when she broaches the subject. She, meaning my sister Sarah. Married now for the second time and happily at that…though it’s only five months into the marriage, so my fingers are crossed pretty tight. Her sons — my nephews — are eight and six, and we’re holding their coats and lunch bags amid throngs of parents ready to shoot themselves if winter break doesn’t end, like, tomorrow.
The subject is marriage, of course. It’s something she knows quite a lot about, though I don’t know if I want the kind of knowledge she’s accrued. I’m too intimately acquainted, perhaps, with the details of her first marriage — and the ensuing divorce.
“So what’s up with Peter?” she asks casually, referring to my ex-boyfriend of five years.
The question catches me off-guard, so I watch the girls board a candy-cane striped train car before answering. “I don’t know,” I tell her honestly. “We haven’t spoken in months.”
She was never a fan of his, since she didn’t think he was Jewish enough to be marriage material, and she’s relieved I’ve closed this chapter of my life. “Okay,” she says, making quick work and moving on to the subject she’s really after. “So
when are you gonna get serious about meeting someone?”
This last part is a familiar conversation. I brace myself. “What do you mean?” I ask, playing dumb.
“You know what I mean. You’re not 25 anymore.” (She’s right. I’m 30. In some circles, 30 is 50.) “Your problem is you’re too picky,” she says sagely. “Take it from me, second time around: You can’t be so picky.”
I shift my bags from one arm to the other, smile amusedly at the ground and remain silent, because what I really want to say is something she doesn’t want to hear: I have met someone, though he’s the furthest thing possible from marriage material. At least in her mind. Maybe in mine, too. We haven’t gotten far enough to know.
In the world I come from — Orthodox Judaism and political conservatism — Adam has about a thousand strikes against him: He’s a colleague. His boss is my mother. He’s super-liberal (my father is William F. Buckley reincarnate, except not as civilized). His living room is crammed with books on topics that are railed against at nearly every family gathering: socialism, labor wars, corporate greed, and Israeli aggression against the Palestinians. Oh — and one more thing: He’s not Jewish.
The first time I visited his apartment, I spent about 20 minutes walking silently from bookshelf to bookshelf, reading the bindings but saying nothing. His walls — apricot-colored, warm and soothing — seemed almost contradictory in their safety. I had been given a taste of what to expect, of course — we had had enough conversations for that — but seeing these ideas stare back at me in uncompromising black typography was still startling. He watched me anxiously, though I didn’t realize how anxiously until that night, when he emailed me: “By the way,” he wrote, “I felt something close to naked as you looked over my room, my bookshelves. You were keen, methodical, taking your time to absorb — I felt quite exposed. Thanks for being gentle.”
I wasn’t trying to be gentle. Mostly I was just shocked into silence, lost in the throes of processing. The books sparked some pretty vigorous discussion about Israel that afternoon, a topic we both follow closely, and when we finally calmed down, he asked me, “Do I seem like a crazy person to you?”
I wasn’t in a hurry to answer and thought about it seriously. “No,” I finally said. “But it’s a lot to take at one time. And I shudder to think of what you would say to my father if you two were in the same room.”
Adam smiled and reminded me that his father is a very conservative, born-again Christian. “I know how to stay away from controversial topics,” he said.
“That’s what you think,” I muttered under my breath.
This is what Adam doesn’t understand: There are no “controversial topics.” There is just him, the most controversial topic of all.
Adam is an atheist, a Christian by birth. To him, religion is silly at best and destructive at worst. I’m Jewish, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. For me, raised with 13 years of formal Jewish education, a mother who spoke only Yiddish to us at home, and the shadows of the Holocaust constantly quivering in the background, intermarrying is the ultimate “fuck you” to both my grandparents and at least some of my existing family. In fact, it’s something that until eight months ago I would never even have considered.
That was before I met Adam — a man who, in brief but radiant moments, gets me at my core so deeply that I often wonder if our cells are communicating with each other while we sleep. It’s still hard for me to fathom that I’m falling for him.
Especially because, in his passion to march to the beat of his own drum, he’s, well…just like my father.
Driving home from the winter carnival, my nieces asleep in the backseat, Sarah broaches the topic again. I am riding shotgun. “Have you considered the Upper West Side?” she asks, as though the first part of this conversation wasn’t six hours ago.
She knows I will connect the dots. The Upper West Side is a Manhattan neighborhood notorious for its high-priced and cramped rentals, but also for the number of 20- and 30-somethings who have settled there — temporarily — looking to find their beshert (Jewish partner).
I’ve visited the area enough to know it’s a meat market, hardly the place where I’d find someone my speed. Sarah is well aware of this too, so I don’t bother to answer her question.
“OK, fine,” she says, relenting. “Then what about Encino?” — the LA version of the Upper West Side, albeit more livable. I choose not to respond to this question, either. But Sarah is getting frustrated. “You have to put yourself out there,” she says, as we slow into a stop. “No one’s going to do it for you.”
The urgency in her voice is almost endearing. I know she wants the best for me, but her definition of “best” is light years from mine. Still, she surprises me a moment later: “You have something very specific in mind, right, Hester? Some people have a much broader idea of what’s acceptable. OK. You need something very specific to make you happy.”
It’s this comment that makes me stop. The truth is, I don’t have something specific in mind, some “type” that I’m looking for. If I did, it certainly wouldn’t have been Adam. But her insights are on target; I am “picky.”
I riffle through my mental images of Adam: blue eyes that x-ray me with their boldness; a smile that pushes only the left side of his mouth upward until he decides to let go — at which point his laugh lines reach all the way up to his cheek bones. I think about the apricot walls of his apartment and the way I feel when I’m with him. Is this what makes me happy?
I think about last Shabbat when I checked my email about 10 times hoping for messages from him, and the ridiculous contrast of my leaving the lights on in my living room and the Crock-Pot on so I could have split-pea soup on Shabbat, and how badly I wanted coffee on Shabbat morning but wouldn’t turn on the tea kettle because lighting a fire on my stove top is so brazenly a violation of the d’oraita prohibition, “Thou shalt not kindle a light on My Sabbath.”
I think of all this open contradiction and wonder what that “specific thing” I have in mind is. Six years ago I might have said it was an Orthodox man. Now, I have no idea.
For the last three days I have been holed up in my kitchen, stripping my wallpaper. I think about how satisfying it is to leverage my scraper under the sedimented layers of 1970s floral paper and glue, to hear that crack as the layers come loose and fall to the floor, a pile amassing at my feet.
I feel a little like the wallpaper — hanging listlessly onto my way of life, unglued. Waiting for someone to pry me loose. Adam is prying me loose.
On our second date, when I was beginning to admit to myself that I could no longer call our meetings casual, Adam and I shared a plate of rice and lentils at a local restaurant. I alluded to the fact that we were breaking certain rules, which I assumed he would take to mean workplace boundaries. But he caught on sooner than I thought.
“Are you not supposed to be on a date with me?” he asked.
“Yes.” No buffer. Just the reality. “Dating you is like — ” there was a sudden crash of pots and pans and I paused to let the noise subside. “Well, it’s a little like that.”
Adam’s response was immediate. “If some institution told me whom I could date, I would reject that.”
“Not whom I can date, but the stuff that dating leads to.”
A couple of weeks later, he visited his family in California. He sent me an email: “You’ve done something to me. I think about you all the time which is strange for me. I can’t believe we’ve known each for so little time, yet here you are inhabiting so many of my thoughts. I wonder what energies of the soul bring that about.”
“I know,” I wrote back. “This is strange for me, too. I’m not used to being consumed by another person.”
“Am I a refresh button for you?” he asked me later, once back in Chicago.
“Yes,” I said, “in many ways.”
Four months later. Adam and I are together. The relationship is different now, more methodical, more mature. We are learning each other. We’ve told our friends and family about the relationship — even some close colleagues — though I still haven’t told Sarah or my father. My mother and I are cautiously close.
Passover came and went a week ago. It felt oppressive and difficult, words I never would have attributed to this holiday that, for most of my childhood, was synonymous with joy.
On the Shabbat that fell during the holiday, Adam and I went on an errand. He drove, since I am still hanging onto that vestige of keeping Shabbat, though I have let many others go. He suggested stopping for a beer and when I told him I couldn’t drink it, since yeast is forbidden during Passover, he grew frustrated.
“It’s the first time the restrictions bother me,” he said, and I wondered why not before, why now. We had spent multiple Shabbatot together at this point, all pretty seamlessly.
Turns out, it was the arbitrariness of my decisions that bothered him, not the decisions themselves. Why keep this rule but break these 10 others? Since it’s a question I’m grappling with myself, I didn’t have a compelling response. But…I
“Wallpaper,” I told him. “Think of wallpaper. You know how when you peel it off it comes off in pieces? And there’s always a few small patches left sticking to the wall?”
Adam finished my thoughts. “So here you are looking at everything you’ve taken off, and I’m looking at the patches that are still up there and wondering why.”
“That’s right,” I nodded. “And you don’t see everything I’ve taken off, because you only know this version of me. But I’m in flux, and staring at a blank wall is kind of scary. Now that I’ve taken these layers off, there’s nothing underneath.”
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Maybe there’s really pretty wallpaper underneath it, or the textured concrete of the wall. It just looks different. You have to get to know it.”
This past Wednesday I moved into a new apartment. It’s glorious, with high ceilings, charmingly irregular floors. It feels symbolic of a new beginning. When Adam came over to help me celebrate the move, we debated where to eat.
“How about a kosher holiday?” he asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
“For one day a month?” I laughed, contrasting this with the first Shabbat he spent at my apartment and how careful he was not to mix my meat and dairy dishes. We discussed it for a few minutes, but as we were gathering our coats he turned to me.
“You’re not actually taking seriously the idea of a kosher holiday, are you?”
“No,” I said, pecking him on the cheek. “I’m not.” Maybe one day. I still have to be able to look at myself in a mirror and recognize what I see.
We stroll down the tree-lined avenue, passing by red brick buildings built at the turn of the century, all of them from an era when people took the time to create detailed facades and tile-work. I can’t believe I live on such a beautiful street.
As we make our way to the sushi place we agreed upon, I think about my grandmother and something she said to me a long time ago. Her family, all Hasidic, perished in the Holocaust; only she and my great-aunt survived, reunited at Auschwitz. My great-grandmother wore a shaitel (a wig), of course, but in the thick of the Warsaw Ghetto she stopped wearing it. Maybe she sold it for food. Maybe the SS took it. My grandmother didn’t know. But why didn’t my grandmother wear a shaitel? I always wondered. She was ultra-Orthodox in every other way.
When I finally asked her, she had a ready answer. “Any time I reach for a wig, I hear my mother’s protective voice talking to me from the Ghetto: ‘It’s easy to put on a shaitel, Gitl. But Jewish life is dangerous. What’s hard is taking it off.’”
Sort of like the restriction not to drink beer on Passover.
Over sushi, the topic of kashrut comes up again. “For you,” I tell Adam, “you have a mental battle in your head. Something wins, you come up with your answer, and the way is clear. No leaves to shake off, no emotion.”
His blue eyes cloud for moment and I think perhaps I have hurt him, somehow trivialized his own internal process. “Every decision is emotional,” he says, sounding hurt. But then he rallies. “And there are always leaves to shake off. So I take them off.” He plucks imaginary leaves off his sweater’s sleeves and drops them unceremoniously on the floor. And then he shares what it was like for him to tell his parents he was no longer a Christian, no longer politically conservative — conversations that make me tremble inside.
Sometimes I catch myself wishing I could be more like him in this respect: simply honest, no inconsistencies, completely transparent to everyone and every issue. Most of the time, though, I know I’m better off being myself. Even if it’s harder.
As I write this, it is Shabbat. I am sitting in an empty room in my new apartment, right in the center of a sun spot. My laptop, a forbidden object on Shabbat, sits across my knees. My phone, also forbidden, sits to my left, playing soothing tunes from Pandora.
This morning when I woke up I thought to myself: You have the entire day to do whatever you want. My day was as blank as the walls that stared back at me. I unpacked a few boxes, mopped my kitchen, then showered and went to shul. It’s the first time I’ve done that in months. If I had no strings pulling at me, no pressures to respond to, no voices guiding me toward something, what would I do?
I went to shul.
And then spent the afternoon writing about it.
* Because of the sensitive nature of this essay, all names (including the author’s) and locations have been altered.
The author, who grew up speaking Yiddish, is a middle-school history teacher. Her students are the sometimes recipients of her many musings about issues of identity.